§ MR. NEWDEGATE
, in rising to call the attention of the House to the case of Michael Atkins, a prisoner in Warwick Gaol, said he wished to remind the House, that this was not the first occasion on which it had been his duty to represent to the House on the part of his constituency, their apprehension of a miscarriage of justice, owing to the reprieve of persons sentenced to death for murder. In 1867 he mentioned the case of James Scott, who shot his employer at Birmingham, and having been tried and convicted was sentenced to capital punishment; the sentence was unexpectedly commuted, and a Petition was presented signed by 3,000 persons, including ten magistrates, praying for an inquiry into the circumstances which had justified the Secretary of State for the Home Department in respiting the prisoner, and afterwards commuting his sentence. He could not say that the reply of the then Home Secretary the right hon. Member for Oxford University (Mr. Gathorne Hardy), had given satisfaction to the midland counties. At the commencement of the following Session he again brought the subject before the House, and, referring to the opinion of Mr. Baron Bramwell, stated that he considered the manner in which the prerogative of mercy was exercised by the Home Secretary was most objectionable—that it constituted the Home Secretary a court of appeal in criminal cases—a court objectionable for these reasons—that it was private and secret, that only one side was heard, and that there was no power to examine on oath. His constituents felt that the case of Michael Atkins was almost identical with that of James Scott, and were dissatisfied with the course which had been taken. Michael Atkins was tried at the March Assizes, at Warwick, before Mr. Justice Hayres, and his case was fully gone into. The prisoner at first stated, that the death of his wife was the result of accident. Now it was a singular fact that a different plea was set up at the trial by a solicitor who had not seen the prisoner until just before the assizes. The impression in the court was that the Judge desired a verdict of manslaughter, but the jury returned a verdict 851 of wilful murder, and sentence of death was passed. The opinion of the whole district was that the verdict was a just one, but to the surprise of everyone the prisoner was respited. It had been his duty to wait on the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department, with a Petition from the inhabitants of Baddesley, which he would now read—In the matter of Michael Atkins, a prisoner at present under sentence of death at Warwick Gaol.To the Right Honourable Henry Austin Bruce, M.P., Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department.The Petition of the undersigned inhabitants of Baddesley Ensor, in the county of Warwick, and of the immediate neighbourhood, sheweth—
- "1. The said Michael Atkins was tried at the late Spring Assizes at Warwick for the murder of his wife, by shooting her with a gun, and was convicted and sentenced to death.
- "2. Your petitioners are informed that the defence set up by the prisoner's counsel in his behalf at the trial was that it was an accident; but the jury after a patient hearing of the case, decided to the contrary.
- "3. Your petitioners are further informed that after the trial the prisoner's solicitor forwarded a memorial on his behalf to the Home Secretary, but what were the contents of such memorial, or whether any one on behalf of the prisoner had an interview with the Home Secretary, your petitioners do not know; but the result has been that the sentence of death has not been carried out.
- "4. Your petitioners read with astonishment that on Thursday, the 22nd April, the Home Secretary stated, in his place in the House of Commons, that an examination of the evidence had satisfied himself and the Judge who tried the case, that the prisoner had been wrongly convicted, and that the whole affair was an accident.
- "5. Your petitioners, and the inhabitants of this neighbourhood generally, concur with the verdict of the jury; but they are now apprehensive that the Home Secretary will advise Her Majesty to grant the prisoner a free pardon, and they consider that if such were to be the case there would be a grievous failure of justice.
- "6. Your petitioners object strongly on principle to the verdict of a jury on a matter of fact being practically reversed on reconsideration of the same evidence which was laid before the jury, and in this case they are informed that the prisoner's defence was fully summed up and explained to the jury by the learned Judge, and they believe that a jury of twelve men who had heard and seen the witnesses are the best possible judges of the facts of a case.
- "7. If any new facts have been laid before the Home Secretary on behalf of the prisoner your petitioners think that they ought not to be accepted until an inquiry has been made as to their truth, and as to whether there are any new facts on the other side, and that a free pardon should not be granted on such ex parte statements.Your petitioners, therefore, pray that Her Majesty may not be advised to deal with the prisoner otherwise than as persons found guilty of 852 murder, but not executed, are usually dealt with, and that the verdict of the jury be upheld.(Signed by S. M. HALLSWORTH, F.R.G.S., and many others.)
On the 23rd of April, in reply to a Question by the hon. Baronet the Member for Wiltshire (Sir George Jenkinson) the Home Secretary made the following statement:—
The third case was that of Michael Atkins, at Warwick, for the murder of his wife, who was respited. An examination of the evidence, confirmed by the opinion of the learned Judge, satisfied him that this man had been wrongfully convicted. The Judge who tried the case stated that the verdict had taken him by surprise, and that the death of the woman was, in his opinion, caused by accident.
Now, according to the best legal advice which he could obtain, if the woman had met her death by accident the prisoner, the mere innocent witness of that accident, should have been immediately liberated. He was, however, detained on the authority of the Secretary of State. At the Autumn Quarter Sessions the question was considered by the justices, and what was their astonishment to receive the following explanation in a letter from the Home Office:—
Whitehall, 13th August, 1869.
Gentlemen,—Her Majesty having been pleased to grant a pardon to the prisoner named on the margin (Michael Atkins), on condition that he be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for the term of one year, to be computed from the date of his conviction, I am directed by Mr. Secretary Bruce to request that you will cause the prisoner to be warned at the expiration of his sentence of imprisonment that on account of the public feeling which exists in the place where the death of his wife occurred, it would be imprudent for him to return there.—I am, Gentlemen, your obedient servant, "A. F. O. LIDDELL.
The Visiting Justices of the County Prison, Warwick.
It thus appeared that the original sentence had been commuted to one of hard labour. Murder was an offence of which a man must either be guilty or innocent, and if the man were innocent he should have been liberated at once. The sentence awarded by the Home Secretary would have been appropriate for the crime of manslaughter, but he did not know under what power or statute, or under what principle of law, the right hon. Gentleman could convert a verdict and sentence of murder into a verdict and sentence of manslaughter, and then inflict a penalty for the latter offence. He did not deny the almost unlimited power which the Home Secretary pos-
sessed in the exercise of the prerogative of mercy, but it had certainly astonished all with whom he had conversed upon the subject, that after having respited the man for months, the Home Secretary should have suddenly declared that he was guilty of an offence for which he had never been convicted, and for which, he had never been sentenced. Early that evening he (Mr. Newdegate) had received information that the prisoner had been liberated—he supposed, at the expiration of the term of one year dated from the conviction—but of that he was not certain. Up to that morning the information he possessed led him to suppose that the man would not be liberated until the end of this or the beginning of next month. The officials of the gaol had used every attention to prevent the man from going back to Baddesley—the parish where the poor woman met her death, but all their efforts had been unavailing. The man was of a peculiar character, and not easily controlled, and though he had been offered money and an outfit to emigrate, he had refused them. If his information were correct, the man was within two miles of Baddesley yesterday morning, and it was said that he was going on to that place. He (Mr. Newdegate) was sorry to say, however, that the inhabitants of Baddesley, and the immediate neighbours of Atkins, felt strongly that the verdict of the jury ought to have been upheld, and it was apprehended he would meet with violence if he attempted to return to that place. This was altogether a remarkable case. The right hon. Gentleman would have the opportunity of stating what new facts had been submitted to him, but he (Mr. Newdegate) had not heard of any new fact whatever that had come out since the trial. He held in his hand the assurance of his brother justices with whom he had acted for years—some of whom had held judicial offices abroad, and who were thoroughly competent magistrates—that the allegation that the affair was the result of accident was fully brought our before the Court, and that the late Mr. Justice Hayes, the Judge who tried the case, took particular pains to elicit that phase of it, and yet the jury came deliberately to the opinion that the poor woman met her death by a wilful act of violence. He had stated these facts plainly and strongly because this was not the first time that the in-
habitants of the midland counties had felt themselves aggrieved by the manner in which the verdicts of juries and the sentences of Judges in capital cases had been dealt with by the Home Secretary. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would state what new facts had come under his notice, and what it had been that had determined the Judge to recommend the reversal of the sentence he had pronounced, and what had induced the right hon. Gentleman himself to exercise the prerogative of the Crown, not in the ordinary way by a free pardon, but by a tardy commutation from one punishment to another.
Sir, considering how strongly the hon. Gentleman views the impropriety of my conduct in remitting this sentence, it seems rather strange that he should have allowed his indignation and dissatisfaction to slumber for so long a time as a twelvemonth, but I trust the explanation I shall give will allay his misgivings altogether. The case is a very simple and a very clear one. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned another case which he says excited great local dissatisfaction, where a right hon. Gentleman—a predecessor of mine—extended the mercy of the Crown to a man convicted of murder. But that was a case where the murder had been committed in open day, and where there was no question of fact in dispute at all, the only question being whether mercy should so far be extended to the criminal as to prevent the sentence of death being carried out. In this case, however, the only question was a question of fact—had a murder really been committed or not? The trial took place on the 1st of March; and it was on the 6th of March, before any petition had reached me, or before any person whatever had seen me with regard to it—indeed, I believe I saw nobody on the subject but the I learned Judge himself—that a letter came to me from the learned Judge, in which he expressed his surprise at the verdict given by the jury, and his strong hope that the sentence of death would not be carried out. As the hon. Gentleman has suggested, the belief expressed by the learned Judge in his letter, and, indeed, my own personal opinion after consideration of the evidence, was that this lamentable event was the result of an accident. Now, what were the facts of the case? This 855 man Atkins had been married about two years. During the earlier portion of that time there had been constant misunderstandings and quarrels between him and his wife, but for the last six months of their married life the evidence showed that they had lived happily together. She was expecting her confinement every day when this event took place. On the day of her death, it was proved in evidence, he came to her with his week's wages; and it was also proved—or rather, I think, it came to my knowledge subsequently, and was not given in evidence—that he had been endeavouring to purchase for her a little dog which he thought she would like to have. Between ten and cloven o'clock at night a shot was hoard, and the neighbours in the next house, the walls being very thin, heard Atkins exclaim, "Oh, Harriet, Harriet—let no man say that I killed you." He went out into the street and met a man, to whom he said—and this really constitutes the only evidence in the case against him—that his wife had shot herself. He took no steps whatever to support that statement, inasmuch as the gun from which the shot had been fired was found hanging upon the peg where it usually rested. The learned Judge summed up, as he said in his letter, not for a conviction for murder, but rather for a verdict of manslaughter. He told the jury that if they were not satisfied of the evidence of murder, there were circumstances which would justify a verdict of manslaughter, inasmuch as culpable negligence had been proved against the prisoner. The man had been in the habit of going out poaching at night. He had a gun which had been recently mended, and the man who mended it had warned them both to be very careful with it, because the lock was so weak that the gun might very easily go off. The statement of the man, which was believed to be true by the learned Judge, was, that his wife, being near her confinement, was nervous, and had endeavoured to prevent him from going out poaching; that there had been a struggle for the possession of the gun, and that the gun had gone off accidentally, when the man, horrified at what had happened, rushed into the street, and fearing that suspicion might be thrown upon himself, he then and there attributed his wife's death, not to accident, 856 but to her own act. The learned Judge having stated his opinion to me, I appeal to the experience of those who have filled this office before me, and to the experience of those who have observed these cases, to say whether it would have been possible for the Secretary of State for the Home Department to have permitted the sentence of death to be carried out. The learned Judge displayed the utmost anxiety that it should not be carried out, and I do not believe that a case has ever occurred, since the power of dealing with sentences was placed in the hands of the Secretary of State, in which a sentence of death has been put in force against the opinion of the Judge who tried the case. Now, for the latter part of the case. The hon. Gentleman says that if the man was not guilty his position was one greatly to be pitied, and he should have received a free pardon. Such, indeed, was my own view at first, and that was embodied in the first Minute which I wrote of the case. But when I consulted the learned Judge, he said that in his opinion there had been an amount of culpable negligence on the part of the man that justified the infliction of some punishment upon him. He said he had told the jury that they might find a verdict of manslaughter, inasmuch as there had been that culpable negligence; and upon my asking him what sentence he would have passed upon the prisoner if a verdict of manslaughter had been returned by the jury, he said he would have imposed a sentence of either twelve or eighteen months' imprisonment. I appeal to the House to say what anyone invested with the responsibility of the office I hold could have done under these circumstances. The position of a Home Secretary is a very difficult one. He is often accused of acting in secret and upon his own more opinion. No doubt secresy is imposed upon him; but it is his duty, and I know it has been the practice of all who have held the office, to obtain the best advice, and above all the advice of the Judge, as to what should be done in such a case. I think the House will be of opinion that I could not do otherwise than act upon the opinion of the learned Judge. Such is a simple statement of the case. With respect to the letter written to the visitors of Warwick Gaol, I think the hon. Gentleman has not been alto- 857 gether candid. He must know very well that that letter was written inconsequence of a letter addressed to me by the rector of the parish. [Mr. NEWDEGATE: I was not aware of that.] The rector wrote to tell me that the state of feeling in the parish was strongly against the man, and that it was of great importance that he should not return while that state of feeling existed, and I therefore felt it to be my duty to write to the visitors of the gaol, expressing a hope that when his sentence expired he should be warned of the existence of that feeling, in order that he might go elsewhere. I rejoice to hear that efforts were made to provide him with the means of going elsewhere. [Mr. NEWDEGATE: Made by our own body.] I have now only to explain how it was that I was unable to give a precise answer to the hon. Gentleman when he asked me whether the prisoner had or had not been released. The fact was that it was impossible for me to contradict the statement that he had been released, or to assert that he had. The sentence was passed on the 1st of March, but as the conviction dates back to the first day of the assizes, and as I did not know how long the assizes might have been sitting when the trial took place, it was impossible for me to say whether or not the man had been already liberated. My first impression was that he was still in gaol; but it is possible that the hon. Gentleman's information may be correct, and that he had been seen in his native parish. It is very possible there may be a strong fooling against the man in his native parish; but I trust that when the report of the present discussion has been published, and the reasons for the revision of the sentence become known to the inhabitants, that state of public feeling which has been described by the hon. Gentleman as dangerous to this man's safety will be greatly mitigated, and eventually pass away. In conclusion, I can only repeat that, under the circumstances, it was impossible for me to act otherwise than I have done.
§ Original Question, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Committee deferred till Monday next.